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Endangered Species in Natural Medicines

by Todd Luger, L.Ac.

As the use of natural medicines becomes widespread, mainstream environmental organizations are becoming increasingly alarmed. Since many natural medicines are derived directly from nature, there is concern about the sources of these raw materials. As with all issues where science mixes liberally with politics, there has been considerable fudging of facts to make a point.

There is no doubt that a number of important medicinal herbs and animals used in the production of natural medicines are endangered in the wild. These now include the very commonly used Goldenseal, Black Cohosh and certain Chinese plants, as well as the rather rare rhino horn and tiger bone. Because of this situation, no reputable herb company carries these items or products that contain them. American practitioners of Chinese Medicine, as a rule, are very environmentally sensitive and ecologically conscious. While worldwide trade in endangered species is a real issue, with regard to the American practice of Chinese Medicine, it is an issue more about perception than reality in many cases. Nevertheless it behooves us all to work to correct this perception by any reasonable means. And to address real concerns of poaching and cruelty where they truly exist.

With regard to the Chinese medicinals mentioned above, the situation is complex. For instance, a number of Chinese plants have been listed as threatened in the wild. However, the plants in question are cultivated on farms for medicinal use and have been so for centuries. They may be threatened in the wild, but the point is moot, because they are not taken from the wild in the first place. With regard to the animals, no one currently raises domesticated rhinos or tigers and this would hardly be acceptable for medicinal purposes. However, tiger bone is not an important medicine and is easily substituted with commonly available herbs. It is also unlikely that tiger bone actually appears in any of the products which list this ingredient on the label. Tiger bone is extremely expensive and the suspect products are extremely cheap. The same is true for the cost of rhino horn, but the whole story is even a bit more complicated.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, Rhino poaching has decimated the wild population of these splendid animals. Supposedly the main purpose of the poaching is to provide rich Chinese with a cure for geriatric impotency. With all the current fuss about Viagra, the underlying motivation for such enthusiasm is understandable, if misplaced. Moreso than any other substance in the debate over Chinese Medicine and endangered species, the rhino is clearly the poster child. To think that the evil Chinese would destroy the last of an ancient, majestic animal merely for some short-lived sexual gratification is horrifying even to those most immune to the battle cry of political correctness. There's a few problems with this scenario, however.

The modern Chinese have made no use of rhino horn in their state system of medicine. While it is probably true that many Chinese bureaucrats could care less about rhinos, the rhinos remain rare and expensive and thus outside the domain of state socialized medical services. All Chinese medical textbooks this century have recommended the substitution of Rhino horn with water buffalo horn. Water buffalo is raised for food in China, as it has been for over 5000 years. The animals are already slaughtered for meat and hides, so they are not merely killed for medical purposes. Also, curiously enough, the rhino horn was never used in traditional Chinese culture to treat impotency. Actually, rhino horn was valued because of its ability to lower severe life-threatening fever, a use that may have justified the slaughter of rhino in someone's mind, especially when one realizes that the fever patients were usually young children. The other horns used in Chinese medicine, such as water buffalo and antelope were likewise used for fevers and childhood convulsions, as in epilepsy.

On the other hand, there is definitely trade in bear bile and gallbladders from endangered bears. The collection of deer antler velvet is reportedly quite cruel by western standards. We must be ever vigilant about the source of products we use. Companies who make herbal products are in it for the profit like all other large companies. Industries left unpoliced, history has shown us, often give birth to corruption. You can learn more about true threats to endangered species and the humane treatment of animals at the Animals Asia Foundation. If you are a professional, you can publicly pledge here to not traffic in endangered species.


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